On a cool summer day, my mother and I hopped on a train from Philadelphia to New York. We weren’t staying the night. There was this man. Unheard of for so long, but apparently back on the scene with a new album? We hummed our favorite tunes as we ate appetizers in the crowded club. Waiting for him. Musing about the drug and alcohol laden past he’d overcome. Or had he? Because he was running very late.
“He’s here.” “He’s Here.” Whispers passed from table to table. The 40 and 50 somethings tittered like sedated Beliebers. He made his way to the stage, face drawn, body slight and bent. He didn’t look anything like the strong, beautiful, be’fro’d Black Man I’d remembered. He stepped to the mic and said “Bet yall thought I wasn’t gonna show! You owe me five dollars ‘cuz I’m here!” His voiced boomed. The Southern lilt that so reminded me of my Grandpop filled the room. The voice was unchanged. It was unmarred by the sands of time and the evils of addiction. It was strong, and sure of itself, and filled with humor, and pain, and intelligence.
The evening went on without incident. He played his more popular songs, and we sang along with every word. He showed off some of his new stuff, and we sat, rapt. It was heavy. It was hilarious. It was mesmerizing. It was everything you expect from a live show. An intimate, gritty performance that feels like it’s just for you.
Gil Scott-Heron was a way that my mama taught me. His illustrious career led and informed my study into African American people. “What’s Going On” would play in the car with daddy, but I sat in front of the stereo to listen to Bluesology/Black History. Following his ups and downs taught me about the harsh realities of life. He sang about the bottle, and then fell into one. He told me about Winter in America, and I looked around to see that it persisted. He gave me insight into the poetic side of a movement and a time period that informs my everyday life. I learned about Watergate, but how else could I have experienced the betrayal felt in its aftermath? I discovered and rediscovered parts of the American story I’d never find in a textbook. He was the person who told me that the revolution would not be televised, right after making jokes about Jaws. He disarmed me with humor and slid in some truth, and I ate up every bit of it.
Enter: Kanye West.
Kanye is a fan of Gil’s. He’s been dropping little hints. A soft haunting hook in the background of “My Way Home,” growing louder to demand your attention. “I left three days ago, but no one seems to know i’m gone. Home is where the hatred is. Home is filled with pain, and it might not be such a bad idea if i never went home again.”
This time around, West has dedicated entire tracks of his “Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to this treasure. “Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America?” The words echo in my mind, still. Is your interest piqued? Who will survive in america? Do you hear this message more clearly because of the new driving bass line?
How about if The xx’s Jamie Smith teams up with Gil? Will you stop and take a listen at this new sound? I sincerely hope so.
Gil’s set was through, and as he stood to leave, my heart panged. I loved this man and his music. Even this new, unassuming version of him in the ill-fitting suit. I hope you get to know him as well.
I am going to link to some important tracks here. Don’t click through and get distracted. Or not click through. Take a little trip through some of the best music and poetry and comedy I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Please enjoy.
Gil Scott-Heron; Comment Number One (portion on track “who will survive in america”)
If you want to hear my all time favorite Gil Scott-Heron album (Winter In America) you can do so here.